Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

The History of the Disc Jockey

by Bill Brewster

“Brewster and Broughton . . . have written a lively and—to anyone with a more than casual interest in the history of popular music in the latter half of the 20th century—necessary volume.” —The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 624
  • Publication Date May 13, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4610-6
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $22.00

About The Book

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was the first comprehensive history of the disc jockey, a figure who has become a powerful force shaping the music industry—and since its original publication, the book has become a classic. Now, with five new chapters and over a hundred pages of additional material, this updated and revised edition reasserts itself as the definitive account of DJ culture, from the first record played over airwaves to house, hip-hop, techno, and beyond.

From the first development of recorded and transmitted sound, DJs have shaped the record industry and the way we listen to music. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton have tracked down the inside story on some of music’s most memorable moments. Focusing on the club DJ, the book gets first-hand accounts of the births of disco, hip-hop, house, and techno. Describing legendary clubs like the Peppermint Lounge, Cheetah, Arthur, Paradise Garage, the Loft, Sound Factory, the Warehouse, and Ministry of Sound, and using interviews with legendary DJs like Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Francis Grasso, Ron Hardy, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, Fatboy Slim, and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life is a lively and entertaining account of musical history and some of the most legendary parties of the century.


“The original and still the best.”—Gilles Peterson

“The chapter on Larry Levan alone transformed me into wanting to be your favorite DJ.”—Questlove

“We can’t tell the story of dance music without speaking the names of Sharon White and Judy Weinstein, so I welcome this vital update.”—Blessed Madonna

“Brewster and Broughton . . . have written a lively and—to anyone with a more than casual interest in the history of popular music in the latter half of the 20th century—necessary volume.”The New York Times Book Review

“A riveting look at record spinning from its beginnings to the present day, the authors show that the history and art of deejaying makes for a grander and more fascinating story than one would think. . . . The book is intricately detailed and informative, filled with grand themes and historical anecdotes, all leavened with a wiseass humor that keeps the whole thing from getting too pretentious.”Time Out

“What makes [Last Night a DJ Saved My Life] so good, besides the crisp, lucid writing, is that it also gives a fascinating, episodic history of the jive-talking radio DJs and Parisian discos that established the themes that would play out in hip-hop, disco and rave culture.”Salon

“These British music-mag writers deliver the goods with humor and a basic sense of good storytelling.”Vibe

“Brewster and Broughton exhibit considerable skill in rendering the meta-story seamless, subtly turning what is essentially an oral history, culled from original interviews and other published sources, into an orchestral piece.”Hartford Courant

“Very informative . . . takes you way back into the “true roots’ of dance music and hip hop’s culture, then smoothly brings you into the future.”—Danny Tenaglia

“This is for anyone who has ever found themselves lost on the dance floor.”The Face

“Exhaustive yet entertaining . . . a definitive history of the disc jockey. . . . The book lovingly captures a host of compelling stories from every seminal DJ across the last century. . . . Energy jumps from the book’s pages.”iD

“From counterculture to mainstream leisure, the DJ has always been at the heart of clubland. . . . An illuminating, thoughtful, and insightful tome.”Muzik


Chapter Two: Make Believe Ballroom

“The entry of broadcasting into the history of music has changed all forms of musical creation and reception. Radio music is a kind of magic and the radio set becomes a magic box.”—Helmut Reinhold

“I can’t live without my radio.” LL Cool J

Who was the very first DJ?

Forgetting, for now, the witchdoctor, the bandleader and all the disc jockey’s other illustrious prototypes, what we’re asking is: Who first played recorded music to entertain a group of people?

Thomas Edison, who invented the cylinder phonograph in 1877, hardly conceived of putting music on it, and in any case his equipment could only just be heard by a single person, let alone a group. Emil Berliner, who gave us the flat-disc gramophone in 1887, would still probably fail on the volume test.

A decade later the radio waves were tamed, but it would take another full ten years before Marconi’s equipment was able to send more than Morse’s dots and dashes. However, when the gramophone and radio signal were finally combined, we find our first DJ candidates.

In 1907 an American, Lee DeForest, known as the “father of radio” for his invention of the triode, which made broadcasting possible, played a record of the “William Tell Overture” from his laboratory in the Parker Building in New York City. “Of course, there weren’t many receivers in those days, but I was the first disc jockey,” he claimed. DeForest was wrong, however—he had been preceded.

At the end of 1906, on Christmas Eve, American engineer Reginald A. Fessenden, who had worked with Edison, and who intended to transmit radio waves between the U.S. and Scotland, had sent uncoded radio signals—music and speech—from Brant Rock near Boston, Massachusetts, and astonished a number of ships’ telegraph operators out in the Atlantic. He made a short speech explaining what he was doing, read the Bible text “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will” and played a few solos on his violin, together with some singing, which he admits “was not very good.” In between all this, he became the world’s first disc jockey, because he also played a record over the airwaves.

What was the very first record played by a DJ? It was a woman (probably Clara Butt) singing Handel’s Largo.

The Power of the DJ

Radio is a unique broadcast medium. It has the power to reach millions, and yet it has the intimacy to make them each feel they are the most important person listening. Unlike television, which invades the home with images of the outside world, radio is somehow part of the place in which it is heard, and the voices and music it carries manage to create a strong feeling of community. Sociologist Marshall McLuhan called it the “tribal drum.” Arnold Passman, in his 1971 book The Deejays, wrote, “The electron tube changed everything, for it returned mankind to spoken communication.”

Because of radio’s uniquely seductive nature, the disc jockey quickly gained adoration, fortune and notoriety. The power of someone playing records across the airwaves was soon noticed and immediately questioned. It was seen as a great threat to employment by musicians and viewed with suspicion by those responsible for society’s cohesion. It was even perceived as an economic threat by the record companies, who thought it would replace rather than promote their products.

And the radio DJ was undoubtedly powerful, almost from his inception. His promotional muscle was the major factor in the creation of the modern music industry (and the broadcast advertising industry, too). He was instrumental in founding new genres of music, by bringing together unconnected stylistic strands and by creating pride and ambition in the local folk musicians who played them. In a similar way, the early disc jockeys were key in fostering understanding between different races and cultures.

The disc jockey’s influence was soon so strong that it attracted more than just envy and suspicion. America’s musicians went on strike for a full year in protest over the rise of the DJ. And before his profession was very old, a radio DJ would be targeted, investigated and eventually hounded to death by the U.S. government, largely because he was perceived as enjoying too much power.

The Age of Radio

It was in 1922 that radio is said to have begun in earnest. Before that there were just scientists and hobbyists dotted around the world toying with the medium and trying to find uses for the new technology. Radio was broadcast to midwestern farmers with coded weather predictions; it was used to boost the morale of the troops of both sides in the First World War trenches; Thomas E. Clark in Detroit broadcast to ships plying Lake Erie. In San Jos’ in 1909, Charles “Doc” Herrold saw himself as the first person to realize the entertainment possibilities of the medium, and gave all his neighbors crystal sets so they could receive the music and interviews he broadcast.

In 1911 in New York City, Dr. Elman B. Meyers started broadcasting a daily 18-hour program which was almost all records. His wife, Sybil True, the world’s first recorded female DJ, went on air in 1914 with a show she called “The Little Ham Program.” She borrowed records from a local music store and concentrated on young people’s music in an attempt to encourage youthful interest in the possibilities of radio. Even at this early stage, it was clear that it was a powerful force. Mrs. True noted with satisfaction that her program had a noticeable effect on the store’s record sales. “These young operators would run down the next day to be sure to buy the one they heard on the radio the night before.”

Radio’s advertising potential was soon clear and in late 1920 the first fully-licensed commercial station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, started on air. KDKA—which soon gained fame for its coverage of the 1920 presidential election—had grown out of Dr. Frank Conrad’s experimental broadcasts as station 8XK, which, using wartime equipment, transmitted from his garage. WWJ in Detroit also started broadcasts in 1920, as did the Marconi Company’s XWA in Canada.

The story of early radio is a very American one because it was only in the U.S. that radio wasn’t immediately seized on as an arm of government. The rest of the world saw the medium as a force to inform and educate their populations and the resulting nationalized broadcasting was paternalistic and staid. America, however, after a brief debate, quickly saw radio as a mass advertising medium. Economic function then dictated its form and as it looked for ways to gain a large audience, American radio settled firmly on populist entertainment. After 1922, when the first Radio Conference drew up formal proposals for the use of the U.S. airwaves, radio proliferated wildly. In March of that year there were sixty registered stations; by November there were 564.

This year, 1922, was also when the BBC took to the air in Britain, with a November 15 news broadcast read by Arthur Burrows. Given its founding Director General Lord Reith’s lofty public service ideals, it took until July 1927 for the BBC to put the needle to the record and give Britain its first DJ.

His name was Christopher Stone and he had to work hard to convince the BBC to let him construct a program around just playing records. However, once on-air it was a great success and Stone’s dry and disarming manner quickly made him one of the first stars of radio. In a distinct contrast to the corporation’s rules of decorum, he was allowed to ad lib his introductions and developed a conversational, almost chatty style as he spun American and American-influenced jazz. In 1957 Melody Maker declared, as it celebrated Stone’s seventy-fifth birthday, “Everyone in Britain who has written, produced or compered a gramophone program on the air should breathe a prayer, or (if it is in more accord with temperament) raise a glass to salute the man who was the founder of his trade.”

Despite the early triumphs of such pioneers, radio had a long road to travel before it became anything we would now recognize. In its seventy-fifth anniversary issue in 1969, Billboard described the sleepy nature of the medium in the years before 1935. Explaining that the evening was taken up by broadcasts from ballrooms and symphony halls, the magazine described the rest of the day’s schedule.

“Daytime programs were dull and repetitious. A solo pianist was heard sporadically around the clock. Stuffy, pompous staff announcers read the news from the daily press. A singer might have his own hour, accompanied by the solo pianist. Weather and livestock reports, farm produce prices, fruit and citrus warnings, poetry readings and interminable lectures on cultural and scientific subjects by boring local academic figures ate up the clock from sign-on to dusk. Records were played too. The same staff spieler who read poetry announced each disc solemnly, impersonally and formally enough to qualify as an adept funeral director.”

The DJ vs the Musician

Almost immediately, the presence of records on the radio aroused opposition. In the U.S., the Department of Commerce granted preferential licenses to stations that didn’t use recorded music, since there was a feeling that playing records was a rather inferior style of broadcasting—mainly because live music gave far superior sound reproduction. In 1927 the industry’s new governing body, the Federal Radio Commission, reemphasized that phonograph performances were “unnecessary.”

While the big stations complied, using music from large orchestras and live dancehalls, the smaller broadcaster still relied on the gramophone. During the Depression, as belts were tightened, the use of records increased. Soon only the big new radio networks such as NBC and CBS could afford to broadcast only live music.

Musicians called the broadcast of recorded music “DeForest’s prime evil.” Stations paid no performance fee to the artists whose records they used, and every time one was played on the radio it was music that would otherwise have been performed by paid musicians. In 1927 their employment prospects worsened further when The Jazz Singer ushered in talking pictures. Thousands of musicians who had performed accompaniment for silent movies were now out of a job. In coming years the jukebox would become another rival. Attacked by technology on all sides, it was inevitable that the jobbing musician would fight hard for survival.

The American Federation of Musicians, a tight-knit closed shop union, declared the DJ to be the enemy of the musician and fought long and hard to prevent records being broadcast on radio. The AFM were aided in this by the Federal Radio Commission, who as Arnold Passman wrote, “attempted everything this side of public hangings to curb the practice.”

On August 1, 1942, America’s musicians actually went on strike over the issue. The AFM ordered a ban on members making records, which would be lifted only when the record labels agreed to pay greater royalties to their artists to compensate for income lost through radio’s use of records. They also threw in a few demands aimed at curbing the use of jukeboxes in nightclubs. After more than a year during which virtually no new records were made, the record companies gave in.

In the UK, the Musicians’ Union and the record companies fought a similar battle against the disc jockey, but this was more about the public performance of records than their presence on radio.

The DJ vs the Music Publishers

Allied to the musicians were the music publishers, then the most powerful part of the music industry. At the time of radio’s birth, sheet music was still the dominant popular musical commodity, and songwriters were the stars of the day. When the world started buying records instead of sheet music, however, power shifted away from the publishers and songwriters and into the hands of the record companies and recording artists. Allowing records on the radio would accelerate this shift, so the publishers fought it every way they could.

As early as 1922, ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the organization which collected royalties for the music publishing industry (and still does), threatened to prosecute radio stations that played records of ASCAP-licensed songs. Eventually, the radio stations agreed to pay ASCAP an annual fee of between $500 and $5,000 each (depending on the size of the station) to play its music.

To counter ASCAP’s power, in 1923 the radio stations bonded together and formed the National Association of Broadcasters. In 1939, with intentions of weakening ASCAP’s monopoly on the copyright industry, NAB created its own copyright firm, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). While ASCAP tried to maintain the songwriter’s preeminence, BMI worked to encourage an industry centered around records and broadcasting. Most established artists were ASCAP members, so BMI’s recruits were almost all younger songwriters and musicians, as well as all the folk and “race” musicians which ASCAP had not allowed to join. This would have serious positive implications for the rise of black music on the radio.

In 1941 ASCAP demanded a royalty increase of nearly seventy percent. Broadcasters resisted the increase and ASCAP called a strike. This lasted from January to October. During this time, no ASCAP songs could be played on the radio.

By the end of the strike, ASCAP had won a significant increase in royalties. However, all the songs played in the meantime had been those licensed by BMI, most of them by upcoming artists signed to independent labels, playing jazz, blues, bluegrass and other less established genres. As a result, strong links had been forged between broadcasters, record retailers and smaller labels, and these ethnic and regional styles of music had gained a lot of exposure.

The DJ vs the Record Labels

For several years record companies remained unconvinced of radio’s overall value as a promotional medium for their products, so they too joined the throng in fighting the idea of the disc jockey. They thought people were less likely to buy a record if they could hear it played for free. This fear was borne out by some Depression-era figures which showed that urban areas with popular radio stations were suffering a downturn in record sales (they were actually suffering a downturn in sales of everything). The larger record companies started taking legal steps against selected radio stations and a series of lawsuits ensued. One of these, the infamous Waring case, even reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Every label on every record specifically carried the warning that the disk was not to be broadcast,” recalled pioneer DJ Al Jarvis in Billboard‘s seventy-fifth anniversary issue. “And so I had to purchase my own records and gamble that the Supreme Court would throw out the Waring case.”

One alternative to records which was successful for a while was the electrical transcription disc, or “ET,” which was in use throughout the forties. This was a monster 16-inch disc pressed not on shellac like the usual 78s but on “luxurious lightweight vinylite,” i.e. vinyl. It spun at the novel speed of 33 rpm, had a playing time of thirty minutes, and contained a whole program, complete with announcements and a live-sounding orchestra playing the latest hits, all captured using state-of-the-art electronic recording techniques. The transcription disc was aimed at the smaller stations and sold as a monthly subscription service. It lessened the reliance on the announcer/disc jockey and, because it was made specifically for broadcast, it avoided record company litigation.

“Most stations could not afford the orchestras and productions that went into the network radio shows,” explained Ben Selvin, who worked for the leading transcription disc company. “And so we supplied nearly 300 stations with transcriptions that frequently—but not always—featured the most popular bands and vocalists.”

Selvin recalled that some of the top artists made transcriptions under a phony name. The money was good, but they had to get around their existing record company contracts. Thus Tommy Dorsey became Harvey Tweed, and Ray Noble and Russ Morgan, other big stars of the time, became Reginald Norman and Rex Melbourne respectively.

“A Sure-Fire Audience Builder For Your Station. A Powerful Selling-Vehicle For Your Sponsors” was how the discs, in this case Tiffany Transcriptions, were promoted. And musicians recall the mammoth recording sessions which produced them. In Duncan McLean’s book Lone Star Swing, Johnny “Drummer Boy” Cuviello, who played with western swing megastars Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, remembers recording nonstop all day long, about a hundred songs in a day.

“We never rehearsed a number. Bob would just recall a tune we knew, next second he’d be up on the bandstand: Ready, set, go! One number after another in the can.”

McLean’s book also explains how the tiny local stations would use every trick in the book to convince their listeners that the band in question really were broadcasting from nearby. “Radio stations would usually fake up their own programs, making on that all twelve or so of the Texas Playboys were crammed into the tiny studio in Slapout, Oklahoma, or wherever. Announcers would come up with effortfully casual links along the lines of, `Well, folks, I hear Eldon Shamblin a-banging on the studio door, so let’s have Bob and all the boys play “Keep Knockin’ But You Can’t Come In”—and right after that we’ll have a message from our friends down at the Slapout feed store.’”

Despite optimistic predictions, the booming market in transcriptions died off soon after the war, largely because of the rising popularity of the personality disc jockey.

The Professional Announcer

The first recorded use of “disc jockey” was in Variety on August 13, 1941, when someone wrote, “. . . Gilbert is a disc jockey, who sings with his records.” Jockey has a number of associated meanings. As well as its obvious reference to a horse rider, it can suggest someone capable of skilful maneuvering, a man of the people, or a trickster. In Scotland “Jock” is a nickname for man or fellow; while in America a jock is a sportsman, named after his jockstrap, the article which protects his man or fellow. When it was first used it is likely that “disc jockey” was meant to be disparaging. The DJ was jockeying his records—maneuvering them with skill—but he was also seen as jockeying, as in hustling, his place in the world.

The DJ’s early years were fraught with such mistrust and he met opposition from all sides. The musicians didn’t want to see records put them out of a job; the record companies were afraid that hearing records played on the radio would stop people from going out and buying them; and ASCAP, the publishing organization, didn’t want its songs broadcast without greater and greater royalties.

Added to this, the DJ was held back for many years by the tendency towards ever more neutral announcing. As radio’s audience grew, the style of broadcasting was increasingly dictated by the networks: CBS, NBC and numerous others who, in fine American capitalist tradition, had managed to dominate the market. The networks and their advertisers preferred characterless, functional announcing, which they saw as more professional. They provided their local affiliate stations with transcription discs that included clipped, sterile introductions, further reducing the role of the local announcer. For a while it looked as if the DJ would never be much more than a characterless gramophone technician.

However, the disc jockey’s star would soon rise. There was a massive expansion in the market and most of the new stations were independent of the stuffy networks. They were competitive, programming to appeal to regional tastes, and they relied mostly on records for their music. This kind of broadcasting definitely needed disc jockeys. Also, TV had started to take away much of radio’s ad revenue, and without the big national sponsors, radio advertising was forced to become much more local. As a result there was a need for snappy talkers to sell up the virtues of chewing tobacco and patent chest tonic. A few talented jocks started to show just how profitable their shows could be.

By the fifties, broadcasters had finally settled most of their disputes with the wider music industry and there were no more legal obstacles to filling airtime with records. In 1948 the transistor was invented, and a radio receiver could now be cheap and portable. And around the same time, society invented the teenager. All these factors combined to encourage the rise of the charismatic, fast-talking disc jockey. The postwar world was going to be a very different place, and records on the radio would play a huge part in making it so.

Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom

Martin Block was the first real star among disc jockeys, one of a handful of successful characters who paved the way for the rapid postwar rise of the DJ. He started as a salesman, advertising various wares (and playing records in between) from a loudspeaker truck traveling up and down Broadway, until the police and local store owners shut him up.

In 1934 he found work as the staff announcer on WNEW in New York, reading off courtroom bulletins from the “Trial of the Century”—the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh Baby. During a long break in proceedings, Block decided to play some records but the station didn’t actually own any, so he was forced to buy his own. He rushed out to the Liberty Music shop round the corner, returned with five Clyde McCoy records and played them back to back to make it sound like a live broadcast from a dancehall, complete with introductions that made it seem like he was actually chatting to McCoy, a Louisiana bandleader.

The station’s sales department thought it was beneath them to sell ads on a “disc show,” so Block had to go out and seek his own sponsor. Unable to find one who would pay, he arranged to promote Retardo slimming pills, and paid for the product’s first commercial himself. A day after Block had been on-air imploring overweight women to “Be fair to your husband, take the reducing pill,” there were 600 letters, each containing a dollar, requesting a box of Retardo. By the end of the week the ad had drawn 3,750 responses.

Block called his show “Make Believe Ballroom” and concentrated on using records to best effect. In just four months his unscripted, easygoing style, combined with music solely from records, netted him four million listeners, and the show was extended to two and a half hours. Advertisers were now lining up. Over the years, Block’s selling prowess grew ever more impressive: one department store reported that his ad-libbed commercials helped them sell 300 refrigerators during a blizzard, and when he made a wartime appeal for pianos to entertain the troops, the USO were offered 1,500. As his influence grew, he held a contest to come up with a new version of his show’s theme song. It was won by a band led by a young man named Glenn Miller.

Block had actually stolen the idea for his show—and even the name—from Al Jarvis, a Canadian disc jockey at KFWB in Hollywood (where Block had been a junior assistant). Though just the staff announcer, Jarvis was an eager student of the music business, and by reading Billboard and Variety—something none of his colleagues did—he was able to tell his audience a little about each record, while his cozy, friendly style won him plenty of listeners. From the early thirties his Make Believe Ballroom was broadcast six hours a day and became very successful.

However, Jarvis enjoyed nowhere near the runaway success of Block, who would become number one in radio for nearly a quarter of a century with the exact same show. Surprisingly, Jarvis didn’t hold a grudge against Block for the wholesale theft of his idea. “He was a bright guy who had talent and determination,” he told Billboard in 1969.

By 1940, Martin Block was the make-all, break-all of records. If he played something, it was a hit. In 1948, while already under a multimillion-dollar contract with ABC, he was able to syndicate his show for nationwide broadcast. This netted him a massive two million dollars. Block had considerable insight into the power of his profession. In 1942 he told Billboard that when he played a record, “If the platter is a good one, the most effective type of direct marketing has just taken place. And sales are sure to reflect the airing of the disc.”

Block’s influence as a disc jockey spawned a new figure in the music industry—the record promoter. In The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George recounts the story of Dave Clark, a young “advance man” charged with the job of warming up a particular city for the arrival of numerous touring bands. In 1938 Clark posed as a chauffeur to gain entrance to WNEW’s offices (he was black and would have been denied access otherwise) and delivered a record—Jimmy Lunceford’s band playing “St Paul’s Walking Through Heaven With You.” Clark sneakily told Block that the disc came direct from the station’s owner, who was waiting to hear it on the air. He then watched Block put it straight onto the turntable.

Capitol Records formalized this idea of radio promotion in 1942, the first year of the label’s existence. With his new company struggling to survive, and unable to press up records because of a wartime shellac shortage (a ship carrying huge amounts of the stuff had just been sunk), Capitol’s chairman Glenn E. Wallichs looked to the DJ to keep the company’s music in people’s minds. A list was drawn up of the country’s fifty most influential jocks and they were each personally delivered a special vinyl sampler of Capitol’s output. This was the first example of a label servicing DJs en masse.

“It was a service that created a sensation,” said Wallichs. “We made the jock a Big Man, an Important Guy, a VIP in the industry. And we published a little newspaper in which we ran their pictures and biographies.”

By the end of the war, radio DJs had started to enjoy much greater respect. In the fifties and the sixties, radio DJing would become a fully accepted profession, an integral part of the music industry. The DJ was a powerful hitmaker and his patronage could start an artist’s career overnight. In 1949 Cleveland DJ Bill Randle, who went on to discover Johnnie Ray and Tony Bennett, put it in a nutshell: “I don’t care what it is. I want to make hits.”

Black Radio and Rhythm and Blues

In 1942 Billboard introduced a music chart called the “Harlem Hit Parade.” Three years later it became “race records.” This wasn’t meant to refer to any specific musical style, it just meant records made by black people. In 1945, Jerry Wexler, later a partner of Atlantic Records, wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature suggesting “a term more appropriate to more enlightened times.” Wexler’s suggestion, already used in some quarters, would soon be the recognized catch-all term for black pop. Billboard adopted it in 1949. It was “rhythm and blues” (R&B).

The biggest impetus in the rise of black music came from the post-war expansion and localization of radio. In the newly competitive market, smaller stations, independent of the national networks, had become the norm. Just as a Texas disc jockey might play The Crystal Spring Ramblers and promote animal feed to ranchers, in New York a DJ would play Red Prysock and rely for his income on advertising hair oil to Harlem. Together with the jukebox, which was serving a similar localized role, DJs and radio gave an incredible boost to the fortunes of less mainstream music and the smaller record labels on which it was released. Black music was the most obvious beneficiary, as the DJ’s influence allowed the various splinters of race music to coalesce into rhythm and blues.

In 1947 Ebony magazine reported that the “discovery that a voice has no color has opened new vistas to Negroes in radio.” Black DJs were hurriedly recruited as radio looked to target the urban black population. In 1947 Ebony could only find sixteen blacks employed in the U.S. as DJs, but by 1955 there were 500, and as Nelson George writes, “It was the DJs’ roles as trendsetters and salesmen, both of themselves and the music, that made them essential to the growth of rhythm and blues.” They talked to their audiences in the slangy “jive” vernacular, they pitched products aimed specifically at the black consumer, and they were playing artists like Louis Jordan, Etta James and Joe Turner.

It wasn’t just their music that was important. Their presence was a beacon for the black communities, important examples of black success in what was then a very white world. Al Benson, aka the Midnight Gambler, was a key figure, because he was one of the first black DJs who didn’t adopt a white way of speaking. “Benson killed the King’s English and I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not,” recalled another black DJ, Eddie O’Jay. “Everybody had to see Al if they wanted to sell to the black market in Chicago, whether it was beer or rugs or Nu Nile hair cream. He wasn’t pretending to be white. He sounded black. They knew he was and most of us were proud of the fact.” Eddie O’Jay himself would be massively influential as a DJ (it was after him that the O’Jays were named) both for the quality of his show and the way he integrated his radio persona with his public life.

Although by the fifties there were many influential black DJs, it hadn’t been easy for their forebears to gain employment. Hal Jackson, who started broadcasting in 1939 (and who, amazingly, is still on-air weekly on New York’s WBLS sixty years later), was told, “No nigger is ever going on the air in Washington,” by the management of WINX in the nation’s capital. Jackson wasn’t going to let plain old racism stop him, however. He bought time on the station through a white advertising agency, hovered outside the studio until just before his allotted slot, and then used his paid-for airtime to interview two prominent black community leaders. The audience reaction was so good he was hired straight away. Within three months he had been employed by two other radio stations as well, working 18-hour days as he drove between D.C., Baltimore and Annapolis and did shows in each. Today he is the chairman of a whole group of U.S. radio stations.

The increased presence of black Americans on radio exposed an entire culture which had previously been closed to whites. There was the music, of course, but the way many of these DJs spoke would also have a huge influence, both on future disc jockeys and on music in general.

“If you want to hip to the tip and bop to the top, you get some threads that just won’t stop,” rhymed Lavada Durst on Austin’s KVET. “Not the flower, not the root, but the seed, sometimes called the herb. Not the imitator but the originator, the true living legend—The Rod,” rapped Baltimore’s Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert.

Biggest of them all, however, was Douglas “Jocko” Henderson, aka The Ace From Outer Space, with his famous 1280 Rocket rhythm review show, live on WOV from Harlem’s Palm Café. Using a rocketship blast-off to open proceedings, and introducing records with more rocket engines and “Higher, higher, higher . . .” Jocko conducted his whole show as if he was a good-rocking rhythmonaut. “Great gugga mugga shooga booga,” he’d exclaim, along with plenty of “Daddios.”

“From way up here in the stratosphere, we gotta holler mighty loud and clear ee-tiddy-o and a ho, and I’m back on the scene with the record machine, saying oo-pap-doo and how do you do!”

When Yuri Gagarin completed the world’s first manned space flight in 1961, Jocko sent him a telegram. This now resides in the Museum of the Soviet Armed Forces in the Kremlin. It reads: “Congratulations. I’m glad you made it. Now it’s not so lonely up here.”

Jocko, and similar loons, showed that the radio DJ could be a creative artist in his own right, not just a comedian or a companion but a vocalist, a poet. This aspect of the DJ’s craft was to have momentous impact. In Jamaica, the sound system DJs emulated this jive rhyming almost immediately and became superstar deejays as “toasters” or “MCs.” In New York twenty years later, there emerged the rapper, the descendant of both traditions.

The White Negroes

The other move that the jive-rhyming DJ took was to change color. Rhythm and blues was too good to remain a black secret for long and as the fifties dawned, certain musically adventurous white DJs started to add it to their playlists. By 1956 a quarter of the best-selling U.S. records would be by black singers. This move was accelerated by the dramatic commercial success of some of the new black stations, exemplified by WDAI in Memphis, since 1948 the first black-owned radio station, which, as well as being the home of DJs B.B. King and Rufus Thomas (he of the Funky Chicken), was extremely profitable.

In adopting this subversive music, the white DJs also started adopting black slang. This “broadcast blackface,” as Nelson George calls it, let them speak (and advertise) to both the black community and younger whites. Dewey Phillips of Memphis’ WHBG was so successful at integrating his audience that the wily Sam Phillips of Sun Records chose him to broadcast Elvis Presley’s first single.

The idea of the “white negro” was still born of racism, however. George recounts the amazing tale of Vernon Winslow, a former university design teacher with a deep knowledge of jazz, who was denied a radio announcing job on New Orleans’ WJMR simply because he was black. After what seemed like a successful interview, Winslow, who was quite light-skinned, was asked, “By the way, are you a nigger?”

Denied an on-air position merely because of his race, Winslow was hired for a most extraordinary job. He was to train a white DJ to sound black. Winslow had to feed a white colleague—now christened Poppa Stoppa—with the latest local slang, teaching him to say things like “Look at the gold tooth, Ruth” and “Wham ham, thank you ma’am.” The show became a smash. One night, frustrated by his behind-the-scenes existence, Winslow snuck a turn at the mic. He was fired immediately, but WJMR kept the Poppa Stoppa name and continued using a white man, Clarence Hamman, to provide Poppa’s voice.

The white negro disc jockey was an extremely successful invention, eventually leading to the zaniness of such star DJs as Murray the K and hundreds of other wacky talkers. Perhaps the most famous white negro was Bob “Wolfman Jack” Smith, but the Wolfman was a relatively late incarnation. Before him had been Zenas “Daddy” Sears in Atlanta, George “Hound Dog” Lorenz in Buffalo, Hunter Hancock in Los Angeles, Ken “Jack the Cat” Elliott in New Orleans, Gene Nobles, John Richbourg and Hoss Allen in Nashville, and, in Cleveland, Alan “Moondog” Freed.

Alan Freed and Rock’n’Roll

Rock’n’roll was created by the DJ. The very name comes straight from the title of a radio show, and the music itself was nothing more than what was previously called rhythm and blues, which in any case, as we have seen, owed its emergence largely to the rise of localized radio and the black disc jockey. In a country dramatically divided by race, the term “rock’n’roll” was simply a subtle way of making black music accessible to white kids. The man who changed the name, and who did more than anyone to popularize the music, aroused such controversy in doing so, that he would be investigated by the U.S. government for much of his professional life, an investigation which eventually drove him to his grave.

Rock’n’roll is said to have been born on the night of March 21, 1952, when Alan Freed, a DJ on Cleveland’s WJW, hosted his Moondog Coronation Ball, a huge concert of rhythm and blues. Such was Freed’s power as a DJ that, with little advertising except for his on-air announcements, the event drew a phenomenal crowd, almost wholly black.

The Cleveland Arena held 10,000 people and Freed had initially worried that he might not recoup his money. However, by 11:30 P.M., as the Cleveland Press reported, there was a “crushing mob of 25,000 hepcats, jamming every inch of the floor.” Thousands of angry zoot-suited ticket-holders were still outside, and as doors were broken down and fighting broke out, the fire department and police put the house lights up and stopped the show. As a college student of the time commented later, “It worried the authorities. They’d never seen that many black people in the street.” Following the event, the local press campaigned insistently for Freed to leave town.

On September 7, 1954 Freed broadcast his first show on WINS in New York. Within weeks he was the dominant force on radio there, attracting a huge, racially mixed audience for his uncompromising black music (in Cleveland, his constituency had been overwhelmingly black). Ray Reneri, who worked for Freed, claimed that if he played a record it “sold ten thousand copies the next day.”

“Rock” and “roll” were euphemisms for sex, both much used in black music since the twenties, and first used together in 1945. When another “Moondog” forced him to change the name of his show, Alan Freed’s Moondog Party became The Rock’n’Roll Party, a term coined by his manager Morris Levy. Ever alert to a business opportunity, Levy even trademarked the term “rock’n’roll,” thinking he’d make money whenever it was used.

Initially at least, rock’n’roll was merely the name of the show and didn’t particularly refer to a style of music. Freed used “rock’n’roll” and “rhythm and blues” interchangeably, and both Billboard and Variety continued to refer to the music he played as “rhythm and blues.” It was only when Elvis Presley’s career was launched nationally that the two terms ceased to be synonymous and the music known as rock’n’roll took on a whiter complexion. However, Freed continued to fill his shows with the raw black records he had always done—songs like Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie,” The Silhouettes’ “Get A Job” and Buster Brown’s “Fanny Mae.”

The reaction to rhythm and blues/rock’n’roll was damning. Some cities banned it from their concert halls, others insisted that under-18s going to a rock’n’roll dance took their parents. The black middle classes thought it would simply reinforce negative stereotypes, with its low-brow, even obscene lyrics promoting an image of black people as gamblers and drinkers keen on promiscuity. White bigots saw it as an attempt at miscegenation, with the Alabama White Citizens Council declaring that rock’n’roll “appeals to the base in man, brings out animalism and vulgarity … It’s a plot to mongrelize America.” Most music critics hated it, too. The esteemed jazz writer Leonard Feather wrote that “rock’n’roll appeals to morons of all ages, but particularly young morons.”

Oblivious to such criticisms, Freed ploughed on, using the advantages of his color to promote this nascent black form in a way in which most blacks had been prevented from doing. By 1957 his show was syndicated across the entire U.S. and could even be heard in Britain on Radio Luxembourg. Alan Freed was not the first person, black or white, to play rhythm and blues on the radio, but he was certainly the most prominent.


Unfortunately, as well as being known for inventing rock’n’roll, Freed was also famous as the first victim of an intensive government investigation into “payola,” the practice of record labels bribing DJs to play their records. In an era of Cold War paranoia, and following the shattering revelations about the fixing of popular TV quiz shows, the government decided to turn its attention to radio.

The investigations into payola came as a direct result of the rivalry between the two music publishing organizations, ASCAP and BMI. With the rise of broadcasting and the growing profitability of the black and ethnic music which BMI had championed, ASCAP saw its position dramatically eroded. Out of spite, it spurred the government to sniff around the financial workings of radio. At the end of 1959 a Congressional hearing into payola was inaugurated. Naturally, there was plenty to investigate: DJs often accepted money and gifts from record labels. Some even had interests in publishing companies and labels themselves.

Despite the moralistic outrage, payola was nothing new. It had existed even before records. In Victorian England, songwriter Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan) succeeded in having a song, “Thou Art Passing Hence,” performed by baritone Sir Charles Santley by giving him a share of the sheet music royalties. This was euphemistically known as “song plugging,” and by 1905, Tin Pan Alley (the New York songwriting establishment) was paying out an estimated half a million dollars a year for stage stars to perform certain songs, although the word “payola” did not appear in print until 1916 when Variety described it as “direct-payment evil.”

The payola investigations coincided neatly with the authorities’ increasing concern about rock’n’roll’s social effects. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared it a “corrupting influence on America’s youth” and the hearings themselves drifted frequently into questions of aesthetics rather than law. The broadcast of forbidden black sounds to excitable white teenagers was seen as revolutionary and profoundly dangerous. In retrospect, the investigation was less an enquiry into financial misdeeds, more a crusade against the unrestricted influence of the disc jockey, here personified by Freed.

Having already been sacked from WINS after a riot during a rock’n’roll concert in Boston, Freed was fired by his next employers, WABC, once the hearings began and he refused to deny that he’d accepted payola. A girl interviewed outside one of his shows was in no doubt as to why he had been removed. It was “the station’s way of getting rid of rock’n’roll,” she said.

The hearings rumbled on for years, until Freed was eventually convicted on December 10, 1962, fined $500 and given a six-month suspended jail sentence. The New York Herald Tribune summed up conservative America’s view when it opined that rock’n’roll was “so bad that it’s almost a relief to learn they had to be paid to play it.”

Freed, arrogant and complacent to the last, admitted accepting payments from United Artists, Roulette and Atlantic Records and distributors Cosnat and Superior. Between 1957 and 1959 he made about $50,000 from payola. Intriguingly, some companies had even given him bogus writing credits (and the royalties they generated) for certain records he promoted—to this day, you’ll find “A. Freed” on the credits for Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”; until Berry saw a royalty statement, he had no idea Freed “had written the song with me.” Importantly, though, Freed never compromised the quality of his shows, and he was certainly not alone in accepting payola.

“It was nothing for the promotion men to keep the disc jockeys in cars and deep freezes and televisions, and fur coats for the little lady,” recalled singer Lou Rawls. “That was the way business was done, and all of them did it until the Man stepped in and busted Alan Freed.”

It is interesting to compare Freed’s treatment with that of an equally powerful DJ. Dick Clark, as host of ABC’s syndicated TV dance show American Bandstand, was for decades the most powerful figure in American pop. Clark had a financial interest in many of the songs he played on Bandstand. He owned a bewildering array of intertwined music companies, and admitted to owning the copyrights to at least 160 songs. However, in comparison to Freed, Clark’s obvious conflicts of interest escaped scrutiny. He was hardly pursued, was never charged, and even had his sworn statement reworded so that he could sign it without perjuring himself. Many have suggested that Clark’s much whiter taste in music was what saved him from criticism. Because of his love of black music, Freed was a far more appealing target. Congress wanted a scapegoat and if they could discredit rock’n’roll at the same time, so much the better.

Although Freed had brief stints at other radio stations, his career went into steep decline after the hearings. Not satisfied with his payola conviction, the authorities went after him for tax evasion. In response to a constant barrage of investigation and character assassination, his drink problem quickly escalated and he died on January 20, 1965 from complications brought about by alcoholism. The obituaries largely concentrated on his ignominious departure from the public eye rather than his considerable influence on popular music.

In 1973 his archrival Dick Clark finally admitted that Freed “was the man who made rock’n’roll happen” and that “we owe a great deal to him.” Before Alan Freed, rhythm and blues was unknown to the vast majority of white people. Rock’n’roll not only affected music—in that black artists no longer had to water down their style to achieve widespread success—it also had a profound social impact, bringing many their first experience of black culture.

For having such influence, Freed paid dearly. He was a clear example of how much power a DJ can wield, and an even clearer example of the lengths to which the establishment will sometimes go to curb that power.

Top 40 and Freeform Radio

In the long term the payola scandals did little to erode the radio DJ’s strength. They did, however, raise the profile of a format known as Top 40. In the wake of payola, the idea of selecting records scientifically and not according to the whims of some corrupt disc jockey had great appeal for station proprietors and their advertisers. In 1961 Murray Kaufman, aka Murray the K, boasted that a Univac computer would select all the music for his show.

The “invention” of Top 40 is much disputed (sales charts had existed since the days of sheet music’s supremacy). The most popular account relates that in 1950 Todd Storz, station owner of Omaha’s KOWH, was one day watching customers choose records from a diner jukebox. He noted that people wanted to hear just a few very popular songs over and over again. With the capacity of the jukebox in mind, Storz named the concept “Top 40” and applied it to radio programming with great success. WABC in New York adopted it in late 1960 and by 1962 was the city’s number one station.

American radio has always put advertising before entertainment (with the exception of the noncommercial public radio and college stations). Ratings are all, and anything that ups listening figures is welcomed eagerly. As a result, since the sixties such “scientific” notions as Top 40 have been taken to extremes. Playlists were trimmed to just twenty-five hit tunes, the most popular of which were “rapidly rotated” and played as often as hourly. Radio stations were “formatted,” limiting themselves to a very closely defined genre (e.g. Album Oriented Rock, Top 40, Adult Contemporary, Urban), and only after painstaking market research were new records added to playlists. The DJ’s role of selecting records was usurped by a new functionary: the Program Director, who was often little more than a market researcher in the service of the ad sales department.

There was a brief backlash against rigid formatting, in the shape of the hippie-driven dream of freeform radio. In the U.S., FM technology, which allowed hi-fi stereo broadcasts, was first licensed for use in 1961. It was the preserve of “serious” radio, often broadcast from universities, with academic programs, jazz and classical music to the fore. But given the rise of sophisticated (or pretentious) rock music, this too found its way onto the FM band, complete with a new intimate style of presentation, and disc jockeys who chose all their own music and who ignored time restrictions and rotation schedules.

The pioneer in this was station KMPX in San Francisco, one of the many music interests of local label owner and concert promoter Tom Donahue. From 1967 Donahue began playing album tracks, avoiding chart hits and promoting the underground bands of the emerging hippie movement, including then unsigned acts Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

As a postscript, British DJ John Peel had been sneaking album tracks onto the air in a UK chart he fabricated on a station in San Bernadino. And in fact, Peel had proposed a format very similar to Donahue’s at least six months before freeform was born in San Francisco, though this had been rejected by the station management. In spring 1967, Peel returned to England and introduced the same ideas on his Perfumed Garden show for pirate station Radio London.

Czar of the World’s Entertainment

As Marshall McLuhan declared, “The radio injected a full electric charge into the world of the phonograph.” And it was in the context of radio that the DJ gained his first victories. From humble beginnings as an experimental hobbyist, via his incarnations as quick-witted pitchman, jive-talking hipster and white negro, the radio DJ showed how much power resides in music and a voice. To this day some of the most influential figures have been found on the dial rather than on the screen, from Murray the K, Gary Byrd, Jimmy Savile, Pete Murray and Alan Freeman, to John Peel, Annie Nightingale, Zo’ Ball, Chris Evans and Howard Stern.

“The jock rules the roost,” proclaimed Billboard. “He is unbeatable. He is, in short, the Czar of the World’s Entertainment. Live with him or join the Merchant Marine. That’s the way it is and will be until smarter men devise something better.”

But smart folk had already invented something better—the club DJ.